Imprinting and Returning to – my experience of learning ‘Trio A’

At some point in the last year, I had a sense that learning Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 solo, Trio A, needed to be a part of my artistic research and practice. I’m not really sure how I came to this decision. Perhaps it was the fact that it appeared physically accessible to me, or the fact that, having a clear means of learning it ‘correctly’ via the handful of official transmitters, made it possible to learn the dance in a way that honoured Rainer’s original work and her rightful ownership of it.

The decision jarred with the other practices I had been learning through my mentors, notably working with Rosalind Crisp with her practice of ‘choreographic improvisation’, and more recently working with the UK based dance maker Amy Voris, devising through a slow accumulation of material over time. Both these approaches to self-choreography* involve improvisation as the primary format. ‘Are you sure Trio A fits in here?’ was the question put to me by my academic supervisor. I could see her point, but does it follow that all self-choreography must be improvised? Or that all ‘set’ choreography is somehow not ‘selfed’ enough?

Listening to Sara Wookey (one of Rainer’s ‘transmitters’) describe the process of what she calls ‘holding the dance in her body’, you get the immediate sense of a work that is in a constant process of coming into being. The live-ness of its transmission allows it to remain ‘slippery’, to use Wookey’s words. I think it was this very slipperiness, this idea of a work constantly being brought into being, that drew me to learning it. That, and the fact that it’s such an important piece of work in the postmodern dance lineage that learning it, embodying it, is like tasting history, biting into a chunk of it and feeling its textures and flavours.

After some emails backwards and forwards, an opportunity came about for me to learn Trio A from Sara via an online workshop organised in collaboration with SITI company in New York. The sessions were spread over two weeks, meeting daily from 6-8pm UK time via zoom. There were 9 other participants, including Barney O’Hanlon from SITI company who led daily warm ups, and Melina Bielefelt who expertly co-ordinated and hosted the workshop. People joined from across several time zones in one of the ironic achievements of a pandemic that has introduced the term ‘social distancing’ into our language: to bring together a bunch of people on opposite sides of the globe.

Even with this convenience of just opening your laptop, it’s funny to think how hard it is to make the space in one’s life and diary. At first I thought I’d have to turn the opportunity down. May was super busy. I had just started working with Amy, perhaps I should focus on that? I’d have to shift or cancel all my evening teaching, which is not an easy thing to do when you’re a freelancer in a pandemic. And then there was the small matter of getting married on the second Tuesday of the workshop. Could I really get married in the morning and learn Trio A in the evening?

Yes you can, and I did.

I’m not writing this to give a full academic account of Trio A or my understanding of it. The resonances are still too new to be really known. But I want to note, right now, whilst the ‘all’ of the experience is still present to me, the things that carried my attention whilst I learnt this dance.

As my learning of Trio A overlapped with my work with Amy, I couldn’t help oscillating these two practices inside myself. I found that one rubbed against the other, making their edges both more distinct and more porous. For clarity I’d like to briefly describe the process that I had begun with Amy, before explaining how this came to resonate with my learning of Trio A.

In my practice with Amy before the start of my Trio A experience, we had begun a process of: opening into moving, recalling, or what Amy describes as ‘harvesting’ (after Nancy Starks-Smith), and then returning to material in order to ‘deepen’ understanding of it. The three step process, is the core of Amy’s accumulating choreographic process, which draws on the framework of Authentic Movement. After a period of moving, or waiting for movement to arise, we sit down to remember what happened, recalling shape, feel, texture, image, thought or anything that arose in the experience of those moments. Amy responds to my recollections with her own observations and reflections, before inviting me to return to whatever might be calling. Amy describes this process as follows:

‘The process of harvesting writings and drawings cultivates sensitivity and clarity toward the embodied memory of moving which, in turn, gives rise to certain verbal and visual markers that serve to simultaneously reflect, project and in a sense thus ‘re-invent’ that experience.‘ – Amy Voris, 2018

Amy clarifies that ‘returning’ remains open, it is not a closing down of possibilities, but a honing in on a potential area of interest, so that something can grow from there. I struggled with the idea. Surely the point of improvisation is that it cannot be returned to, in a way? I wondered whether I could actually return to something after the event. Surely the spontaneity requires me to let it go?

A snapshot of my ‘Harvesting’ notes from 13th May 2021

With this question sitting on the shelf of my mind, I started learning Trio A. It’s been a long time since I learnt set material, I wondered if I was going to struggle to remember. It turns out that the ability to learn movements is still there, (once I worked out the zoom mirroring thing). Sara reminded us of the labelling of corners 1,2,3 and 4 and I chuckled at the memory of learning this in my Cecchetti Ballet theory (I think it was followed by walls 5, 6, 7 and 8). I had completely forgotten all of that! But another curious experience was the feel of the process of memorising, or is it the process of embodying? Learning?

Each day we recalled the previous days’ section and added on a new bit of material. And each day I was aware that the new stuff was in a different place in my body-mind to the material we had learned previously. I suppose this was the difference between short and long term memory. Although a few days difference probably doesn’t quite count as ‘long term’ enough. I wondered: perhaps I didn’t really ‘know’ the material until I had returned to it? Perhaps there’s something about learning that starts off as being superficial, or unconscious copying, until it is re-learned, re-encountered?

I found that when I returned to the new material on the next day, I was experiencing it through this half known feeling, and that made me aware of what aspects of the material I had not consciously learned. It’s like an initial imprint that doesn’t quite sink into the sand deep enough to be sustained, so that when the day’s weather passes over it, what remains is just the points of contact that were most assured, most present, most known? I cannot find the right word. So when I return to the imprint a day later, I can feel what’s missing, what’s smudgy, and then I re-imprint, placing footprint over footprint, carefully noticing what I missed and being interested in finding ways to make those movements more acknowledged, more known. Sara encouraged us to find ways to annotate the dance for ourselves, which I began with the drawings below. On subsequent days I found myself adding more information to the initial drawings, using different coloured pens to indicate the new information and creating a way of tracking my own learning, that mirrored my practice with Amy.

A snapshot of my notes from my learning of Trio A with Sara Wookey, May 2021

If I bring that realisation back to my work with Amy, I notice that in some sense, there is a similar process at play. I’m relieved by the thought that returning-to might not lead to a dilution of the original, but is, instead, a more conscious kind of knowing. It’s as though the space/time provided by re-encountering, gives enough perspective for the material to be approached through new eyes. Perhaps where the two diverge is that with each re-encounter with Trio A there’s a deliberate attempt to re-imprint a specific shape, whereas in Amy’s practice, it’s inherent slipperiness is the very means by which material emerges: the imprint is allowed to shift, to stretch and compress as it’s honed over time.

Either way, the deepening of the imprint remains a constant quest, a ‘never arriving’.

I had a strong sense of this idea of ‘carrying the torch’ throughout these two weeks. Both Sara and Barney described their lineages, their love for their mentors and their desire to share their work in as undiluted a form as possible. It made me think of Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of consciousness that he describes in ‘I am a Strange Loop’ (2007). Born out of his grief on the death of his wife, Hofstadter, a physicist and cognitive scientist who famously wrote ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: the eternal golden braid’ (1979), wonders whether our consciousness is really so solely located in our physical bodies. Instead he posits the thinking that perhaps consciousness is more like a resonance that is at its most undiluted in a person’s being, but which, through communication, can be embodied, in a less pure sense, by someone else.

It is no wonder that we naturally assign consciousness to the living. It has to move, to resonate, for it to be present, in much the same way that a dance needs to be danced for it to be present. I find it interesting that Rainer states that the 1978 filming of her performing Trio A, (which is available on You Tube), is not an accurate record of the dance. Rainer’s insistence on the transmission of the dance through people with whom she has had direct contact, also seems to echo this ‘liveness’ or ‘lived’ process. And surely within that decision is the realisation that, as with any live process, it becomes open to dilution. All of which problematizes the idea of Trio A as a set choreography, or what it means for choreography to be truly ‘set’. The way I imagine it is as a work that is always trying to be asserted. If Rainer’s original performance is like a tightly closed fist around the work (which can never be a complete vacuum), then subsequent learners offer increasingly looser holds around it, until it eventually is just about contained within a space. I find it interesting that Rainer describes the process of re-asserting the work as a ‘tune-up’, a re-tightening of the grip, re-enclosing of the gaps around it. And, as with Voris’ process, each returning involves a deepening of the performer’s relationship to it, so that conscious re-imprinting engages a different level of knowing and learning.

What I found most encouraging, and most interesting about the workshop, was that it was itself a holding of space, a container for people to meet within. The point of focus was clearly delineated, but around that there was this emergent process of diverse practices, knowledges and experiences that was forming into its own locus. The group emails, which at the start of the workshop mainly contained links that contextualised Trio A and Rainer’s work, started to shift into notes that recorded all the diverse responses and the webs of ideas that people brought up in discussions or daily check ins. I have to say it’s both incredibly liberating, and heart warming, to be able to plug into a wider field and find a new sort of belonging. I want to make space for that going forwards.

A phrase that recurred in my mind as I went through the workshop came from one of my first sessions with Amy, where I wondered what to do with the busy-ness of my mind as I moved. Amy responded that ‘it was all welcome’ which seemed to capture the democracy inherent in the learning of Trio A too. It seemed to suggest that all of this is present, (the fear of losing income, getting married, the anxiety of meeting new people, the alternating practices) and all of this is welcome, just as long as you stick to the dance.

*In carving out this field that I describe as self-choreography, my intention is not to hold rigidly to the delineations of improvised versus set material, but instead to locate ‘choreography’ within a wide range along that spectrum.

Mirror 2020

This short study was created during the Covid-19 lockdown. Reflecting on my own isolation and need to reach out and touch the world, I created this duet with a Mirror, building on my research with Mirror in 2017. I was initially drawn to the way the mirror created an external ‘partner’, with the crop of my arm seeming both connected and disconnected from my body. In the final section I play with the perspective and framing of the camera, which mirrored that of the mirror itself creating a double dialogue and commentary on the ways we are contained and ‘enframed’ by our real and virtual spaces.

What does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’?

There’s a great quote in an interview with Philip Decoufle where, asked about his solo work, he states:

“There is no choreography in a solo. Choreography begins when there are three dancers. When there are one or two I don’t believe it’s choreography. ” (Pakes, 2004)

And yet here I am, as I think are many others in this Covid world, seeking to do what Decoufle states is impossible: to choreograph on myself. To the countless artists for whom working alone is an ongoing fascination and choice, Decoufle’s words possibly say more about the expectation of what it means to choreograph, then the impossibility of self-choreographing,…perhaps?

Which leads me to wonder: what does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’? And, more to the point, why does it feel so difficult?

Perhaps so much is made out of the difficulty of being alone in a space, that we allow ourselves to be consumed by the emptiness of it? I know my challenges are not so much around what to do, but why I do it. Why this leg instead of that leg? Why now and not later? What’s the point of it? Who wants to see this? Why would anyone want to see this?

Which is why the question, ‘what does it mean to self-choreograph?’ is not just a question of definition. Of course it feels significant that I describe it as ‘self-choreography’ and not simply ‘solo choreography’. Solo choreography can be performed by another after all. By self-choreography I mean to forefront the authorship over the singularity of the performer, I mean to direct the viewer not just to the presentation of a dance, but to the self-choreographed nature of a dance. And there-in lies it’s stickiness.

Self-choreography involves engaging with the multiple facets of ‘self’ (a loaded term, for sure). It involves recognising the different voices that are present in the mind when one starts dancing alone. The alone-ness, the emptiness, the silence may feel like a harsh denial, but, like meditation practices, it’s simply a momentary restriction on stimulus that allows those voices to become really present. And don’t they know it! Working alone is difficult because it acquaints us with ourselves. At this point I recall Ben Spatz’ question in ‘What a Body Can Do’:  ‘Is this theatre or therapy, spirituality or research?’ (Spatz, 2015)

The answer depends on what you do with it.

For me, the emptiness is filled with a single strident critic. Working with my mentor, Rosalind Crisp, I’ve become aware of the gazillion ways ‘that voice’ stifles my dancing. Nothing I do is right for her, nothing interesting, nothing good enough. She embodies every single person who has told me I’m no good, every programmer who turned me away, every bad application outcome. She has a bloody loud voice, she’s cynical, critical and deeply unhappy. That bit’s the therapy.

But now someone else walks in. She tells the critic to shut it and sit down over there, tells the dancer to stop fussing over her clothing/ the cold floor/ her hair and ‘just get on with it’, whatever that is. And then she invites the choreographer to watch.

The choreographer suggests something. She offers an intersection, a disruption (large or small) that contains, directs the moving dancer. Each suggestion comes with a caveat: try it first, you can always leave it. The dancer is not bound to do exactly what the choreographer says. The dancer can make choices within the rules she is dancing with. The choreographer watches, and stretches the spaces around the rules. She clarifies, brings more nuance to the rules, more layers, more textures. She holds the dancer to those spaces, and then she lets her go and watches again, watches as the imprint reveals itself in the dancer’s movements, watching the echoes of that exercise dissipate, collect, re-collect.

The comparison with therapy is not so far off. My mentor and teachers are currently stand-ins for my own choreographer. They enter the space like a gardener, weeding out the stuff the quells the flowers. Putting things in their place, giving space and nourishment to the delicate buds so that they have space to bloom. The result is an instant relief. The skill of self-choreography is to be your own gardener.

Sometimes Rosalind jokingly asks: ‘why can’t you do this yourself? If you spent long enough working alone, 20 years down the line you’d work this out for yourself’. But that’s only if I learn how to work with myself and don’t have a massive falling out that leads to self-destruction! It can be a dangerous game to delve into working alone, precisely because of this self-confrontation.

But I do persevere, which begs the question, why? Why self-choreograph?

To me self-choreography has been a deliberate choice. The embedded-ness of author/performer is both an aesthetic and a political statement. It is about dismantling the hierarchy of performer/ choreographer models and challenging the outside-in approach, (the grand artistic vision), with an inside-out process, one of ‘material handling’ (to quote Barbara Bolt), of finding something rather than producing it.

All this is, in fact, what it means to ‘self-choreograph’.

Capturing as Choreography

NB: the notes in this blog aim to document my work as a dance artist / researcher. For notes on my Pilates teaching work please go to http://www.margueritepilates.com

IMG_1141IMG_1142IMG_1143IMG_1144IMG_1145IMG_1146

The above photos document my practice (in place) in July 2020. Working in my home here in Tottenham, North East London, I began to capture my movement through an automated photo app. I set up the app to capture a picture every 1 minute for 5 minutes. The result is a series of frames that I call ‘choreographies’, ‘temporal enframings’ of my explorations of the frame as I move around my living space.

‘To see choreography as an apparatus – moreover, to see it as an apparatus that captures
dance only to distribute its significations and mobilizations, its gestures and affects, within fields of light and fields of words that are strictly codified – is to delimit those hegemonic modes of aesthetically perceiving and theoretically accounting for dance’s evolutions in time. The casting of dance as ephemeral, and the casting of that ephemerality as problematic, is already the temporal enframing of dance by the choreographic.’  (Lepecki, 2007)

Solo Choreography: What’s the Wizard?

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

At the start of this scholastic year, when things seemed so certain, dates were fixed and real life plans were made and normally kept, I started a Practice as Research PhD.  I began thinking, aiming, intending to unpack the solo form. I cannot really say that working solo was an absolute choice. It was more a situation that I found myself in, and when I tried it out, I found it sometimes fitted and sometimes did not. And so I began to think…

On the occasions when it worked, I was working with some kind of technology, by which I mean, a physical device of some sorts. It could have been a projector in the space, a mirror, a physical frame. Inanimate (although I’m sure that in later writing I will tear that assumption apart) but yet dialogic partners.

On the occasions when it did not work I was on my own in a (usually cold) space, rolling around on the floor, writing increasingly frustrated notes in my diary, like this one on the 14th March 2019: ‘Why am I doing something that I’m just finding really hard? Why do this?’ Or this one on the 25th April 2019: ‘I can’t just improvise!!!!!!’.

I was a maker, a choreographer even. I felt that I had to choreograph in some way, whatever that meant. And there I was, on my own, completely stuck.  But I knew I had to ‘do this’, because as an artist for 17 years, I was on the brink of being annihilated. I had shifted so far to the edge of this thing we all call ‘the dance world’ that a gentle sneeze would have shoved me off. I was there, in a freezing cold studio, because I had to be, because being there was the only stake I had left in my claim to being an artist.

If the first two realisations were the basis for my PhD enquiry, then this last one was the motivation for pursuing it. And starting has been like a sigh of relief. Reading, thinking, writing in long hand, un-editing, listening in to this space around the solo and around my work with the solo. I was tired of fitting in to 200 word sections of applications. I now have 50,000 to write and I am going to enjoy every one of them! (Note to self to re-read this post in 4 years time).

I’m using this blog to document, track and share my practice research as it develops, in the hope that, by making this seemingly indulgent enquiry public, I might be prompted to think beyond the scope of my singular work.

You have my reasons for starting a PhD, but you might still wonder what the point of it is. In all honesty, I do not know, but I have a hunch, or a number of hunches: It is about the empowerment of the artist /self, about the problems with choreographic models (the assumptions within and the structures of support that enable them) and about recognising the layers of technology (both visible and invisible) that frame and enframe (to use Heidegger’s term), our practice, so as to reveal the wizard behind the screen.